Nikola Vucevic key to attacking Milwaukee Bucks’ rim protection-oriented defense

Nikola Vucevic became the catalyst for the Orlando Magic, dominating the Milwaukee Bucks and leading the team to a surprising Game 1 win. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic became the catalyst for the Orlando Magic, dominating the Milwaukee Bucks and leading the team to a surprising Game 1 win. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

The Milwaukee Bucks’ defense is deterring shots at the rim and forcing the Orlando Magic to shoot jumpers to win. The only answers may be getting Nikola Vucevic the ball even more.

During the regular season, the Orlando Magic shot 32.9-percent of their attempts at the rim (defined as within four feet of the basket). With just less than one-third, the team placed 26th in the NBA in the frequency of shots at the rim.

Orlando is not one of the best offenses in the league anyway. But this lack of the easiest shots in the game is certainly part of the reason the Magic have struggled.

More importantly, the Magic shot 63-percent on these shots, which was 18th in the league. The Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks were the top three, showing the importance of a good percentage in this area.

The volume of shots in the restricted area does not correlate with success, as both the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks were top five this season. But it is still a safe bet that the easier the shots, the better a team’s offense.

Especially when it comes to the playoffs when close and easy shots are at a premium.

So far against the Bucks — as we now turn our attention at least partly back to basketball ahead of Saturday’s Game 5 — the Magic are struggling at the rim. It seems their only productive half-court offense is playing through center Nikola Vucevic.

And to get shots at the rim and attacking the paint better, it means getting Nikola Vucevic more involved.

Shots at the rim are crucial, as they are the highest percentage shot, and also can create free throw opportunities. The Bucks built their defense with the number one priority being avoiding and also contesting shots at the rim like no team in the league has done in recent seasons.

In a reverse of the trends of just a few years ago, the Bucks chose to give up more three-pointers and as a trade-off made it nearly impossible to score those precious points at the rim.

During the season, 39.3-percent of shots were three-pointers against the Bucks, the third-highest mark in the league. By dropping Brook Lopez deep into the paint on pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs, the Bucks have bet that no team will have good enough shooters to consistently hit tough off the dribble threes and mid-rangers.

So far, the Bucks have won that bet against the Magic. Last year, the Bucks won at that bet all season until they met the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Magic unfortunately do not have Kawhi Leonard, but there are ways they can attempt to attack the Bucks defensive plans. Orlando has given Milwaukee some problems in this series because of the team’s mid-range shooting ability.

Especially with Vucevic.

As the Magic have already shown at times, a good strategy against drop coverage is to pick and pop instead of roll. This only works with a big who can shoot. The Magic have one and Vucevic has taken advantage of this weakness in the defense — to the tune of 29.5 points per game and a 63.4-percent effective field goal percentage.

Their All-Star center was able to make a high percentage of shots from beyond the arc in both Games 1 and 4, leading to one win and one closely contested game for most of the second half.

Vucevic is a very impressive 15 for 34 from three in the series, but it actually seems they may need even more shots from him from beyond the arc as long as Lopez sags off.

There are times Vucevic can pop and possibly take an open three. While no team should do the same thing every play, continuing to take and make these shots will open the floor if Lopez or another defender is forced to guard all the way to the 3-point line.

But this spacing creates opportunities for the Magic to attack and kick out. It forces the Bucks’ defense to make decisions as they chase around screens. Vucevic is always an outlet when they get stuck.

Ultimately, Milwaukee prefers a player taking a runner as James Ennis does here. But it is easy to see the space this creates.

Another option is to give Vooch the ball and run dribble handoffs off him to a shooter like Terence Ross.

Without Lopez nearby, there is no one to help on an effective dribble handoff if Vucevic can get in the defender’s way.

It has been known Vucevic’s play may be the most important factor to the Magic winning, and, since he is playing so well, the Magic need to involve him in the offense even more.

With data from just the first three games of the series on Cleaning the Glass, the Magic have shot only 19.2-percent of their shots at the rim, easily the lowest in the playoffs.

For reference, the lowest in the regular season was 28.7 percent by the Spurs. The Magic are not making their shots either, converting just 52.6 percent, also a playoff low.

The Bucks defense is doing its job.

What the Magic are doing now is not working, as shooting that low a percentage at the rim will not lead to wins.

Even so, the Magic are not going to quit just because they are not the better team. Their most profitable offensive plan has been to get the ball to their star center, and doing so in a pick and pop scenario will likely get him the ball uncovered, at least for a moment or so. The Magic need to continue to go to this play until it either stops working or the Bucks are forced to adjust.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That is what turned the Magic’s Game 1 win into a blowout. The Bucks abandoned their drop coverage to try to guard Vucevic on the perimeter and the Magic attacked the paint, getting the necessary paint touches to set up their 3-point shooting.

That part is still proving difficult.

Lopez even showed some signs of adjustments in Game 4, playing up on Vucevic on certain plays.

These adjustments are something the Magic should try to force, not avoid. Vucevic is a skilled passer and was able to set up his teammates with seven assists in game four in an adjustment to different coverages as he spoke about after the game:

"“I’m just going to keep playing my game, keep staying aggressive, playing off what the defense gives me,” Vucevic said after Game 4. “Tonight, I was able to make some plays for my teammates as well. I just want to keep playing the way I’ve been playing and take it to another level if it needs to be.”"

The Bucks pack-the-paint defense has been carefully practiced all season and has proven to be extremely effective. It is a tough defense to crack.

Deciding to go to the rim anyway is not a good idea, especially with the personnel the Magic currently have and as proven by the percentage they are shooting on shots close to the basket.

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Finding outside shots for Vucevic has proven to work so far and can continue to work as well as using him as a passer to find shooters. Using these plays can then open up easier shots to the rim and create a more diverse offensive attack which will give the Magic the best chance to win.